What university is for…

This past weekend a couple of my 12-year-old daughter’s friends came to stay. Yes, a weekend-long pyjama party. There were cupcakes, roasted marshmallows, popcorn and a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon. I wasn’t invited to join them, of course (sulk), but I had fun lurking on the sidelines. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t already seen the Lego Movie three times. On Saturday, over dinner, Sophie asked: “Is it true that at university, you don’t have to go to class?”. Which inevitably lead to me launching into a long explanation of higher education and where I think it’s going (“No, hon, the idea is you don’t go to university unless you really want to”). Since I’ve been writing about it recently, and since once I launch on a topic it’s difficult to get me to shut up, I soon had them enthralled with my views on the future of college.

Here’s a (very) brief summary of what I told them: I do believe that a traditional undergraduate option will before long not be the “standard” path. I am certain that today’s young will have much more influence over the education they receive than my generation did. And I regard the Internet as an astonishing channel of access to information and sources, which allow for custom learning, creative thinking and meaningful work. The “typical” curriculum that lands on the desks of the big-company recruiters will very soon be a thing of the past. What you do with your life is more important than what job titles you hold. Creativity, persistence, a thick skin, hard work and strong values will take you places. A good degree does not guarantee you happiness, or even job security.

image from The Guardian

image via The Guardian

But, if you can afford it, I do recommend going to the best university you can, preferably in a different country than the one you grew up in. Why? For the life experience. Leaving home, fending for yourself, making mistakes, learning, doing so many things you’ve never done before, becoming who you want to be… An online education, accessible and beneficial as it may be, can’t create those sort of memories and personal growth. Sure, university isn’t the only place where you can learn about life, of course not. But it is one of the most intense, condensed, friendly opportunities to combine really growing up with valuable brain-stretching and soul-searching.

This morning I was reading the Knight Foundation’s report “Above and Beyond: Looking at the Future of Journalism Education”, when I came across a paragraph that for me beautifully laid out the advantages of the immersive experience and the breadth of subjects. Bradley Hamm at Medill/Northwestern University was talking about the Journalism degree:

“I don’t believe an educated person can leave a journalism program and not know about journalism history. … if I were to say that you brought in a Medill student and said they’ve had law, ethics, history … the ability to understand the skills of writing and visual communication. … You match that with professional experience, internships, student media, with study abroad and other leadership opportunities, and in an accredited world with a second major or minor or special emphasis, I think it’s as good a degree as you could possibly get, whether you choose to go into journalism or not.”

The implication that breadth of study and experience make for a useful education made me think of an interview I heard over the weekend of Fareed Zakaria, about his new book “In Defense of a Liberal Education”. Fareed is upset about the increasing emphasis on the need for trade-based skills and focussed, technical studies.

“…traditionally America has always believed … that a broad-based education is the best thing you can do because you teach people how to think, read, study, write and that those broad skills … teach them to follow their curiosity and to kind of love learning. That those broad skills are actually much more useful in the long run.

The president of Harvard once said that the purpose of a degree from a liberal education is not to train you for your first job but for your sixth job because what you need are these basic skills.

Of course if you want to do science and you love science, that’s part of a liberal education, but don’t just do stuff because you think you’ll learn the skills for that first job because life is going to change. You’re going to be working for 40 or 50 years.”

Fareed stresses, rightly so, the need for critical thinking and thoughtful communication. It may be more difficult to get a well-paying job with a liberal arts degree right out of college. But that isn’t necessarily everyone’s priority. The ability to ask the right questions establishes paths and doorways. The practice of cross-referencing areas of study generates innovation. Big-picture insight helps to hone life goals.

All of which are difficult to master with online education. Without the dialogue and the arguments, without the group interaction and the exposure to differing ideas, without the life experience of sharing and working together and supporting your peers that the immersive, residential university experience allows, we miss out on valuable personal skills. We miss out on cross-cultural experiences, on stumbling across eye-opening concepts, on seeing huge possibilities through the lens of connections and subtleties. Whether it’s a science degree or liberal arts, the opportunities that the “traditional” universities can offer still outweigh those of the efficient, focussed online versions.

monsters university

I am a huge fan of online education, and will encourage my daughter to think objectively about what she wants from her education and her early work experience. But as a mother, I would like her to enjoy the human experience of campus life. University should not just be about imparting knowledge. It’s about getting ready for what’s next.

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